In my change leadership seminars I often make the point that communication will occur within your organization. The only question is, do you want to participate in the communication? The biggest mistake we can make is to delay communication until we know more. About the time you are swearing your leadership team to secrecy is about the time the rumors begin. Honesty, early and often, is the best policy.
But wait. How can I tell everyone what’s going on when I don’t even know what’s going on? Again, the truth, early and often, is the answer. Tell what you can. Speak in probabilities. It’s OK to say something like: “We are exploring XYZ direction. There is a 70% chance that we will make this choice. I will let you know when the analysis is done. If we go in that direction it does mean X. It does not mean Y.”
This is hard. You have to show your thought process publicly. Do you have the courage to expose yourself as a leader? Believe it or not, some managers have actually convinced themselves that their employees don’t want or need to know, yet. Take a moment to think about this from the employee’s perspective. Be careful not to mistake their inexperience with receiving communication from their organization as disinterest in communication. This is a learning process for both sides.
You also have to follow-up. The environment changes rapidly. You’re busy. So are your employees. It’s critical to keep everyone up to date. You’ve exposed your thought process. Regular updates are necessary so that over time the wisdom becomes organized into a theme leading into your change initiative. Finding a variety of ways to keep people informed and involved is the fun part.
Analyze your rumors
Rumors are the window into the soul of the organization. What are your rumors like? Analyzing the rumors will give you insight into the needs of your company. Just some of the symptoms that can be exposed by the content of the rumors include lack of trust, lack of information (the trickledown effect isn’t working), or a lack of respect in management’s abilities.
Is the rumor so farfetched it sounds like a best-selling novel? This may indicate that the employees are too far removed from how management and the decision making structure actually works. Grandiose rumors can hit both ends of the spectrum. They can erroneously depict the organization in a very positive light, which might indicate an arrogance that could be troublesome in the marketplace.
More often though, the greatly exaggerated rumor is slanted to the negative. If the rumor were true the management team and the company would be ashamed. How could our employees dream up such things? If the rumor were true it would prove that management actually lies or withholds things. Perhaps the rumor is a symptom of a basic distrust of management. This is frustrating when you are telling the truth. Focus on the cause of this feeling beyond the current rumor. What led to the possibility that an employee would think that this could happen? Take actions to build trust and credibility. How? Spend extra effort on communicating, explaining the decision making process, and explaining the why. This extra effort will educate employees as to how these things get done and possibly may identify some faulty logic that could be adjusted.
Maybe rumors indicate a basic lack of information. If you are still solely dependent on middle managers distributing information down through the ranks to front-line employees, this will be a common problem. Recall the game of passing a message from child to child and seeing how distorted it is at the end. Trickle down communication in a corporate environment works just as poorly. For more information on this topic, read the related article Communicating Organizational Change.
Take advantage of the rumor mill to help diagnose problems and issues that if ignored can cripple your organization.